The cancellation of Ontario’s basic income pilot project was a major disappointment for the low-income participants who were counting on three years of secure income and for those who were counting on the research data evaluating the program’s success.
It was a bold experiment, where people with low incomes in five communities received monthly payments of $1,416 as individuals or $2,000 as couples. The researchers would measure whether those funds would improve the recipients’ overall health and mental wellness, as well as housing stability, education and training, employment and use of healthcare services.
Without that data, we don’t know if a basic income would have helped to improve the lives of those who received it in Ontario, but we do know that the pilot project served people who continually struggle to make ends meet — the same population that has the highest risk for developing chronic disease.
In B.C., those living in our poorest communities are between 24 per cent and 91 per cent more likely to die early from chronic diseases such as cancer, respiratory diseases, circulatory diseases and diabetes, depending on the disease.
We know that without adequate income, the 550,000 British Columbians experiencing poverty don’t get an opportunity to make healthy choices for themselves or their families. We also know that people who have disabilities or are ill are more likely to live below the poverty line which can worsen their condition.
What we don’t know is if a basic income would change that or what it would cost. But B.C. is on the cusp of finding out. An expert committee is considering the feasibility of a basic income. Its members are consulting with individuals and organizations until March 15 on a potential pilot project and how our income assistance programs might be improved.
The fact that B.C. is considering a basic income pilot project shows there is an interest in looking at new models to help break the cycle of poverty, as well as ways to tackle the challenges faced by those with visible and invisible disabilities. Any model that reduces deep poverty will also benefit our healthcare system.
The direct healthcare costs associated with chronic diseases have been estimated to be as much as 80 per cent of B.C.’s Medical Services Plan, PharmaCare and acute care budgets. To put this in context, it’s important to note that healthcare is the single largest line item in the provincial budget.
Basic Income has the potential to address deep poverty by helping provide basic essentials — such as healthy food, secure housing and transportation — without stigmatization. It also has the potential to control rising healthcare costs. Ensuring income security for those most at risk for chronic disease can put them on a healthier trajectory, one that isn’t as dependent on our healthcare system.
The facts on poverty in our province are startling. One in five children in B.C. live in poverty. This has not changed since 2016; it has not changed enough since the early 2000s. And it will not change until our system does.
Can a basic income change the system? We hope to find out.
In B.C., we have the chance to pick up where Ontario left off and study whether basic income is a viable tool to lift people out of poverty and into a more stable position. We hope the committee and the B.C. government considers all the costs and savings in their study. One thing we know is that the cost of inaction is almost certainly more in the long run.
Rita Koutsodimos is executive-director of the B.C. Alliance for Healthy Living and co-chair of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.
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